This morning my fellow seniors and I bought our cap and gowns for our college graduation ceremony. This afternoon I can’t see past my tears. I wonder if I’ll ever wear my cap and gown. My first reaction once I scan the anticipated email is not one of grief, but one of mundane practicality: I need to return my cap and gown. My frugal side flares up whenever anxiety has its hooks in me. I spent money on something I will never use. I have no need for symbolic clothing to hang in my closet like a relic of senior year. My brain morphs into a hamster trapped in a ball. It thinks, return, return, return.
After a while, I manage to escape the hamster ball. That’s when the tears come. Will I walk across that stage? I never liked that rite of passage. A figure of authority announces your name and you put on a smile of relief that four–or in my case three–years of college, of exams and questionable food are over.
But we, class of 2020, had a surprise graduation via panicked rumors and, finally, an email.
Dear Campus Community,
The World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. In light of this, all classes will move online, all campus events are canceled, and all residents living in the dorms must relocate from campus housing. We understand the impact this has on our community and your learning. We will do our best to maintain a semblance of normalcy in order to continue your education.
Don’t misinterpret our sadness, all-mighty administration. We seniors understand that social distancing is imperative to protecting the most vulnerable of our community. It’s the right choice.
But what about our collegiate milestone?
“I’m just kinda bummed cause it took me 6 years to graduate–with transferring and changing majors halfway through–and I don’t even get a graduation ceremony let alone just be able to just go to class,” University of San Diego senior Celeen Gharibian said. “I understand that the situation is serious and I want to do my part to flatten the curve, so I’ve been staying home. For an introverted, unemployed college student, my daily schedule is virtually unchanged other than going to class. But that’s what makes it so upsetting because going to class was really all I did.”
Some of us took our graduation ceremony for granted.
Every year thousands of college seniors slip into their cap and gown and receive their diploma and a handshake on stage. Every day the sun comes up. We had no reason to doubt. Others planned graduation down to the shoes they’d wear. They begged less enthusiastic students for extra tickets to the ceremony because their entire family absolutely had to be there. They ordered expensive announcements and made plans with friends to defile campus.
At University of San Diego, seniors host a photoshoot as they splash in the fountain. They pop champagne outside the iconic church you’ll most likely see in any photo of USD. I chose to have my girlfriend take pictures of me fighting a statue of a deceased colonizer in the rain. We all have our personal preferences. But we haven’t just lost graduation.
Our last semester has taken on a digital life; one of isolation, of rushed goodbyes and of Zoom meetings.
Our college relationships have moved online. We will never go to our professors’ office hours again. Instead, we might see their faces on a screen, delivering a disembodied and impersonal lecture. Graduating Resident Assistants patrolled the halls to say farewell to their freshman residents, but they’d already fled the dorms and left us empty rooms without a goodbye. Friends in lower classes packed in a panic and, in their haste to leave, forgot they won’t see you on campus next semester.
Many seniors have spent months to years working on projects, plays, portfolios and beyond that will never see an audience. “Losing the last semester of college feels incredibly disappointing,” University of Florida senior Danielle Martin said. “You’ve built up about four years to relish in your last semester, but it’s been taken away. I’m worried about my graduation being canceled, but I guess the upside is I have time to watch shows.” Grey’s Anatomy, here I come (proceeds to watch the most emotionally destructive episodes in order to put my misery in perspective).
Others look to the future and feel as though COVID-19 threw us to the wolves.
“These last few days have felt like mourning. People keep saying that it isn’t until you leave college that you join the real world. I don’t think that’s entirely right, but now that I lost the rest of my last year at college, it does feel like some sort of bubble just burst around me,” University of San Diego senior Ale Esquer said. “Leaving college was supposed to be bittersweet, but ultimately a celebration. Instead, our generation, across the world, got what feels like the end of the world.”
Our occupational plans for post-college life fade into uncertainty as we draw closer to our nominal graduation. An already unsettling time of transition now sits under a cloud of worldwide upheaval that the global community has arguably not experienced since World War II. Our lives, class of 2020, track pivotal times, from 9/11 and the 2008 stock market crash to Trump’s election and now COVID-19. Each of these periods of pandemonium ushered in apocalyptic panic. Yet here we stand, about to reach a privileged milestone that only 6.7 percent of the world attains. Be resilient, seniors. I believe in us.